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Different Times (Installment I)

different-times

Louis orders the sabodet and a bottle of Côte de Nuits Vougeot.

The waiter bangs the wine bottle on the table. Slaps a steaming pain Poilâne next to it. His apron is dirty.

Louis nods as the waiter pours. The rich Poilâne smells wonderful.

"Will it be a good day Monsieur?" the waiter asks.

"Oui," Louis says.

"Bien," The waiter replies and disappears into the dark café, humming to himself.

Louis eats.

The wine is awful but the river below takes his mind off it. Louis hasn’t been above ground in years. His memory dim. Was it always this way? So much...stench? Wine like piss?

Across the avenue and rusting fences, crowds mill. They peruse empty markets and shops. A sea of bodies.

To the eye it's like any other day in the Post-Integration world. But it's not. Something is different. At least for Louis.

Decaying cobblestone avenues are the same. Human detritus. Rotting vegetables, trash, urine, buzzing insects, both real and machine. Same as before, only worse.

There is no joy here. Not even the pretense of it. It's parched of spirit. A veneer of calm.

Children, drenched in dust, gawk at corroding bronze horses. Their eyes are pockmarks. Frozen horses perched atop the stone fountain stare back.

Louis shakes his head. Enough, he thinks. Get on with it.

Louis knows the streets. He has been there. Like the crowds beyond the fences and etched walls, he has scratched life from the food boxes the Glorious City provided. No longer, he thinks.

The men on the other side of the fences glare. Grease streaked faces. They watch Louis in the café as slummers do.

They look away now. Fear of being tagged by the cams. Being marked. They will never be allowed over the walls. They have resigned themselves to that. Slumped shoulders, defeated.

Louis shakes his head.

Above the festering crowds of slummers, the cameras are like sores. They are everywhere. Digital eyes that digest. Every movement and expression, noted, measured, compared, calculated. The dead machine eyes also drift in the air: buzzing drones.

Paris is a prison. New York and every other major city on Earth are the same.

Another drone passes by. It distracts Louis. This one is disguised as a dragonfly. It flutters awkwardly, soundless, and jets away.

The slummer crowds feign ignorance of all of this. The digital eyes. The overlord machines. Slummers have only one concern: food.

Louis counts the avatars. It’s becoming more difficult each year. Tech improves. No doubt the avatars are police. Police Avs to ensure the fabled tranquility of Paris. In reality? To ensure that the crowds do not riot in the slums--as slummers are want to do.

The waiter brings the sabodet and Gaperon cheese now. It breaks Louis’ bleak revelry. The waiter excuses himself. At least he is mostly real, Louis realizes, except for his clothing. The waiter’s fine suit is a cheap projection, probably Chinese. The food is still real, he reminds himself. Even if prepared by machines. Anything is better than the filthy food boxes of the slums.

The Gaperon is well peppered and the Louis spreads it on the toast. He eats half and pretends to drink the purple Vougeot this time.

He checks the time. Three o'clock.

The late lunch crowd is thinning. Some wink out as he expects. More avatars to make it seem that the café is popular. It is not. The food is subpar. The machines don’t care what they feed and the waiter is only a pretense. An ill informed effort to have people lead meaningful lives when they don’t need to work.

The combattants de la liberté come now. He has been expecting them.

He nods slightly. They, like him, are freedom fighters. What remains of La Résistance, from the Virus-Wars -- the V-Wars. They are a small group, self-funded. Supported by a complex underground, as fractured and ineffective as it is. But hasn't that always been the history of revolutionaries?

Star sits first. She’s the tech-geek of the small group, but her looks don’t match her profession. She could pass for an Italian movie star anywhere--if there were still such things as movie stars. But Star is more brains than curves.

Louis never tires of watching her. But he keeps his distance.

Kojak sits next. He's ten years younger than Louis. A front-liner during the V-Wars. Listed as deceased, a fact Louis uses to their advantage.

Today, Kojak's playing the part of a lazy businessman. And like the TV legend of a century ago, he has something in his mouth. A pencil, not a lollipop. Louis wonders where he found it. A museum perhaps? Surely it's a copy.

A crossword puzzle completes Kojak’s ensemble. It’s not bad cover, Louis thinks. But what does he know? They aren't subtle field operatives. This is new to them, a last-minute decision.

The newspaper in Kojak's hand is awkward. Contrived. Why not a reader, Louis wonders? Why not direct-read? Kojak's muscled frame seems out of place.

Louis is not his real name. None of them have ever used their given names. Not that it matters. They're not listed anywhere. Not recorded in any church or government office. Not filed in any hospital. They are, for all intents and purposes, ghosts.

What’s more, they’ve been kept out of the Integration and they intend to keep it that way. Years ago, they would have been "off the grid." Today? Illegals.

Right now, Kojak has a job to do and Louis gives him the signal. Kojak disappears into the café and makes his way to the restroom. Inside he finds the bodyguard. It’s the first kill of the day.

After a brief struggle, Kojak dispatches the bodyguard. He sits the heavy body on the toilet and closes the door. His pencil has been put to good use.

A moment later Kojak is outside, with the bodyguard’s cell pad. He gives it to Louis and returns to his table.

Louis breathes a sigh of relief. Relax he tells himself. Keep your cool. If this is going to work, you need to stay focused. Any spike in his heart rate or release of pheromones can trigger the system—the Integration’s alerts.

He takes deep breaths now. Long months of practice are paying off.

A fly drone buzzes by but nothing happens. Good, Louis thinks.

The American couple, John and Myra Kremel, still sit at a table. They are under an umbrella. Cheese and bread are spread out before them, but they are not enjoying the food. Next to the river's edge, they study the crowds in the slums. Their absent bodyguard is not yet a concern.

© 2020 Jack Shorebird